It hasn’t been pretty, but this is a workable compromise on an ugly issue

Labor has embarrassed itself by backing a bill in the Senate only to change its mind in the House of Representatives. But it has not folded.

Under pressure from the government, it has made changes that actually improve the bill. Apart from the weird role-reversal, that is how things are supposed to work.


Before, the bill introduced a structural weakness to offshore processing and hence to border security. It is absurd to argue otherwise. Future asylum seekers would surely have been encouraged to brave the phalanx of boat turnbacks in the hope of using the medical backdoor from Manus or Nauru.

It would be perverse to be better off by being sick. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses … your chronically ill.

But by limiting the law to the current refugees in offshore processing, Labor and the crossbench have reduced that risk. Maybe some asylum-seekers will hope that Australia, having made exceptions here, will make exceptions again, but it’s quite a gamble.

Nor was it ever only about medical care. Virtually all medical transferees and their families who’ve come before have used the courts to stay, making it very much an immigration issue.

Labor has stood its ground on a politically risky question given the vulnerability it faces on border security, thanks to memories of 2012 and 2013.

The government is going to stoke those memories every chance it gets. And now it has a new fire iron.

Special Minister of State Alex Hawke, a close ally of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, said Labor had elevated border protection to a major election issue.

“They’ve made a major mistake,” Mr Hawke told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. “They’ve revealed to the Australian people that they are prepared even in opposition to change the framework – what will they do in government?”

Let’s hope it stays reasonable. If medical transfers happen in the lead-up to the election and politicians and commentators on the hard right choose to play hard ball, those refugees could become the ultimate political pawns. That would be truly ugly.

David Wroe is defence and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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